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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 8 New Delhi February 8, 2020

My Vision of India 2047 AD

Sunday 9 February 2020


by Shyam Menon

The following is the text of the 21st D.S. Borker Memorial Lecture held at IIC, New Delhi on August 24, 2019.

Professor Ashis Nandy, Professor Aseem Prakash, Mr Suhas Borker, the Trustees of the D.S. Borker Memorial Foundation, the Borker Family, members of the IIC, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:

Let me first of all express my gratitude to Mr Suhas Borker for inviting me to deliver the 21st D.S. Borker Memorial Lecture. I am also grateful to Professor Ashis Nandy for helping me negotiate with my initial reluctance to accept the invitation.

I begin by paying homage to the Late D. S. Borker, distinguished civil servant, whose life and work had been inspired by the spirit of the national movement and the ideals on which the Republic of India was founded.

My talk this evening has five parts. Part one explains my initial reluctance to accept the invitation to deliver this lecture and my despondency having agreed to deliver it. Part two is about how I understand the term ‘vision’. Part three is about where, according to me, India is headed in the next few decades. Part four is a brief exposition on education. And part five is a brief conclusion.

I am struck by the significance of the fixed theme of this lecture series “My vision of India 2047 AD”. We are often bewildered by the apparent caprice and unpredictability of contemporary developments—local, national, regional and global—that we encounter in shorter spans of time, day-to-day or in these days of twitter, almost minute-to-minute. In the process of making sense of some of these short time-frame developments, sometimes, we lose sight of the larger perspective, a longer time-frame. It is therefore useful to have occasions like this to step aside from short-term thinking and look far and look deep. The year 2047 is symbolic for us. It takes a full century, one would think, to build the nation we had promised ourselves in 1947, when we had redeemed “not wholly or in full measure”, as Nehru reminded us, the pledge we had made to destiny during our tryst with it long years ago. A hundred years hence, we expect that we will have redeemed it wholly and in full measure and perhaps even manage to do something more. I congratulate the D.S. Borker Memorial Foundation to have thought up this constant theme. Thinking along this theme enables us to de-clutter our minds of short-term anxieties and hopes and look at our future in a longer time-perspective. However, as we get nearer to the year 2047, our short-term anxieties take the better of our long-term hopes, for we begin to fear whether at all we will have the time or the opportunity to redeem our pledge. On the other hand, we begin to feel apprehensive that somewhere along the way, during these past seven decades, the pledge we had made has somehow got faded in our collective consciousness, and perhaps we are now trying to renegotiate with destiny for another tryst! Taking a page out of the Brexit lexicon, I would suspect that we must be negotiating a new deal, or perhaps ‘no deal’, with destiny!

My initial reluctance to accept the invitation to deliver this lecture today had something to do with the unsettledness that I had been left feeling after May 2019. I realised that a whole set of premises underlying my understanding of contemporary realities needed to be re-examined. That made any exercise of envisioning our future deeply wrought with problems. Even so, at that time, I hadn’t quite realised that we were standing on quicksand. Who would have thought, for instance, that between when this lecture was announced and today, the political map of India would be re-drawn? This essentially means that we cannot take anything at all for granted while engaging with our hopes and fears about the future.

The happenings during this current month, August 2019, constituted some kind of surrealistic experience, which made it clear to me that any kind of envisioning of thirty years into the future was most hazardous. I was petrified, wondering what kind of trap I had gotten myself into having agreed to share with you in a public forum my vision of 2047. In that moment of total despondency, the following words that I had been familiar with ever since my student days came back to me almost like an epiphany:

All that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.1

These lines were part of what may perhaps be the most read vision statement ever written, Manifesto of the Communist Party. Although it was published in February 1848, Marx and Engels had written this document towards the end of 1847. That means these lines were written exactly two hundred years prior to the year that we are here this evening to envision. Although these words were about the consequences of constantly revolutionising modes and instruments of production in the epoch of the bourgeoisie and the consequent uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, I found these words resonate with my own unsettledness, witnessing as I was the several disruptions during the recent weeks. I needed to be reminded that nothing that we had gotten used to during these past seven decades could any longer be taken as a given.

Having said that, even when something had been envisioned so persuasively by two of the most brilliant minds of the Nineteenth Century, it still could go terribly wrong. The collapse of capitalism under its own weight, the emergence of a classless society and the withering away of the State, all these seem to be much farther today than it might have appeared to Marx and Engels in the middle of the Nineteenth Century.

So, here at last I found my caveat. If my vision of India 2047 were eventually to be proved completely off the mark, then I can at least console myself that I was in the august company of two very distinguished bearded men!

Part 2

In an article that came published in Calvert Journal in December 2017, Sasha Raspopina reported the unearthing of several time-capsules in Russia and some of the other former Soviet Republics.2 These time-capsules containing messages written mostly by the local committees of the Communist Party were buried in 1967 in different parts of the Soviet Union as part of the celebrations marking 50 years since the Revolution, with the expectation that these would be unearthed in 2017 when the citizens of the USSR would be engaged in glorious celebrations of the centenary of the Revolution. These messages make very interesting reading today. Some of them are like straight out of science fiction. Some are full of polemics. Some others express hope for peace. I will read out to you a message that one of those time-capsules contained, that yearns for peace:

You’ve never had to chant: ‘Shame on the Israeli aggressors!’, you’ve never had to protest the criminal war in Vietnam, read news about provocations in revolutionary Cuba. How far away these events are from you! [...] Young crowd of 2017! We are sure that you have justified the trust your heroic predecessors have invested in you, that you have created a new world.

This particular message came from Ukraine of 1967. It is a sad irony that Ukraine even today is a warzone.

I brought this up essentially to highlight the point that we must not take this whole exercise of envisioning too seriously. If we do, that will be a bit childish. Whether we like it or not, we tend sometimes to extrapolate past and present to an unknown future, which does not take into consideration the unexpected disruptions and the complexities that they unleash which might alter drastically our course ahead. Having said that, I would argue that envisioning as an exercise is of intrinsic importance. It may or may not give us a peek into our likely future, leave alone usher us into a desired future, but it surely gives our present a perspective, a sense of purpose, a sense of mobilising solidarity around a shared goal. That is perhaps what they were doing with those time-capsules in 1967.

Let me now try and clarify what I understand as ‘vision’. I would like to locate the category ‘vision’ in an ecosystem constituted of other related categories, viz., dream, aspiration, hope, reasonable expectation, apprehension, fear and despair.

Dreams, aspirations and hopes in their undiluted form lead to imaginations of utopia. On the other end of the spectrum, apprehensions, fears and despair lead to imaginations of dystopia. In between these extremes is located the grey area of reasonable expectation. When we lean too much towards hope or for that matter to fear, we are making projections, either in the positive direction or in the negative, in which inheres an assumption that there will be major historical disruptions. However, we know only too well that history is full of disruptions whose explanations are all too often arrived at only ex post facto.

To me, vision is a combination of dreams, aspirations and hope tempered with reasonable expectation, having taken into account the apprehensions and fears. I would like to see vision as a resultant positive force incorporating and containing within it the pulls in both these directions. When vision is articulated through a collective historical process and a whole society or a nation begins to consider that they have a collective stake in realising it, it assumes the stature of an important source of inspiration, motivation and energy to act towards a shared goal even if it is at times at the cost of considerable personal sacrifice.

Underlying a shared vision is enormous amount of groundwork already done historically. In that sense, a vision is grounded on historical antecedents and mobilisations that have already been accomplished often through a painful and protracted process. Yet, vision stretches beyond what objective circumstances and historical antecedents would prepare ground for. It is a force that galvanises people, a community, a society or a whole nation to act beyond themselves and their limited historical roles. The realisation of a vision is usually more than its imagination, often because of the extraordinary synergy that a whole society or nation would bring into making it happen. Conversely, when the future is envisioned as a dystopia, it provides us with a shared cause of preventing it from realising.

Let us now examine one extreme possibility that is not very uncommon in history. When we discover that our hopes for the future are incongruent with the reasonable expectations we draw from the course of contemporary events, and we feel intensely helpless to influence in any manner the course of events, one tends to take refuge in another exercise that I did not include in the ‘hope-fear’ continuum. This exercise is Prayer. Prayer stands outside the ‘hope-fear’ continuum. Prayer to me is a complex synthesis of hope and fear. When reasonable expectation leans more towards our apprehensions than our hopes, we tend to focus our energy to distil out the essence of our vision and wish deeply that it is realised. When one finds oneself in total despair and immersed completely in despondency, one wishes intensely for things to fall in place, in ways we don’t completely comprehend, and put us back on the path of our shared vision. It is when reason provides little hope, that we resort to prayer.

Yet, prayer is vision in its purest form and it holds the potential of invoking powerfully, people, communities and societies much more effectively than any prosaic and well reasoned-out vision statement can. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. had demonstrated to us convincingly the power of prayer as a powerful force of political mobilisation.

Let me therefore clarify that under the broad rubric of vision, I shall talk this evening about my hopes, my fears as well as about what appears to me as reasonable expectations. I will raise those issues, concerns and questions related to our society and our polity which I think are critical in the next few decades.

This is by no means exhaustive. I do not have the expertise to offer full explanations or answers to these. All the same, I think, it is important for us to reiterate our cognition of these issues. I will raise these as open-ended questions in my capacity as a Citizen, inviting all of us to ponder over these. I shall at times resort to prayer, particularly on such matters where I do not see any resolution.

I will also talk briefly about education, which is my area of practice and in so doing, focus on two key issues that I consider critical in understanding education in India three decades into the future. Education, as I shall argue, is more a consequence of, or a corollary to, the social and political trajectory that we are likely to traverse through than a cause.

Part 3

What would be the idea of India, or rather Bharat, in 2047? And what by then would have happened to Hindustan—“humara” Hindustan which is “saare jahaan se achha”? What would be the character of our Constitution? Would the Republic continue to be Socialist, Secular and Democratic? Would Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity be still its guiding principles? What would be the nature of the Indian State and the polity, come 2047? What would be the state of federalism in India? What would be the kind of geopolitical games in South Asia and elsewhere that the big boys would be playing? And I would imagine that India by 2047 might be one of them, and would that transform us as a nation and a society? I do not wish to indulge in any crystal ball-gazing on this matter. There is undoubtedly considerable fragility in the situation and any eventuality is possible. However, it serves no purpose speculating on this here. I will leave these questions for all of us to ponder about.

India is one of the most unequal societies in the world today. It is truly an incredible India—incredibly unequal! Unlike in many other societies, inequalities in our society between social groups and between men and women have an entire cosmology and the backing of religious doctrines. That is perhaps the reason why Brahmanism and patriarchy, and majori-tarian supremacist ideologies hiding behind these, seem to strike back with renewed vigour, vitality and determination every time we begin to believe that we have seen the last of them. As we enter the third decade of the twenty-first century, we find ideologies supporting caste system, male domination and majoritarian supremacy alive and kicking, finding new forms of dominance, hegemony and oppression. Having said that, I am hopeful that the oppressed castes and tribes, as well as minorities, will mobilise themselves strategically into effective political formations that will have a pan-Indian presence and considerable political and electoral clout. I also see very clear indication that, in spite of the resurgence of patriarchy in certain quarters, women, particularly urban women, across classes, are going to be increasingly assertive about their rights, largely thanks to their impressively increasing participation in education and employment. However, I fear that for rural women there is a long road ahead of them, a path of struggle and resistance from within oppressive structures.

I would hope that the rigid rules of endogamy that insulates jatis, castes and religious communities would loosen. At the moment, less than five per cent of all marriages are outside caste. This is changing in metropolises and will eventually spread to small towns as well. The tension between progressiveness and revivalism will continue. The next few decades will see more struggles, particularly on the part of women. I see honour killing as the last act of desperation by patriarchy on the emergence of a new womanhood that it finds difficult to reconcile with. I dream of a 2047 where there is no more honour killing. I see a reasonable possibility of a major shift in the asymmetric distribution of labour within domestic spaces between women and men, particularly in urban India. I also see the possibility of a larger proportion of urban women, choosing not to get married, particularly through the arranged marriage route, because the heavy price that marriage and extended family extract from them is no longer acceptable.

In the first few decades after independence, there used to be certain reticence bordering on mild embarrassment about flaunting wealth. It is no longer the case for the past about two decades. Inequality is not any longer something to be embarrassed about. P. Sainath had observed from this very platform three years ago that India now seemed to be celebrating its inequality.3 The last two decades have seen an unprecedented, aggressive flaunting of wealth. The 27-storeyed tower home on the Altamount Road, Cumballa Hill in Mumbai that stands tall as a phallic symbol thumbing its nose at the city’s squalor is the ultimate act of celebration of India’s modern day inequality. On the other hand, this imposing residence is an awe-inspiring, almost quasi-religious, symbol—something like a giant totem head—serving as an amoral compass for the highly motivated and upbeat aspirational India. My fear, supported by reasonable expectation, is that in the next two or three decades, it will be difficult to reverse this trend of increasing inequality. By 2047, it is probable that inequality will have found new manifestations.

Let me add a parenthetical note here. The aspirational India is largely drawn from the upper caste. Brahmins who constitute 5 per cent and Baniyas 2 per cent of the population, dominate big business and the professions. In the case of the corporate sector, the picture is quite stark. A study by D. Ajit, Han Donker and Ravi Saxena, published in 2012 in the Economic and Political Weekly examining the caste diversity in corporate boards of the top thousand Indian companies, reveals that Brahmins occupy 44.6 per cent of positions on corporate Boards and

the Baniyas 46 per cent.4 There is evidently a perfect alignment between caste and capital and it appears that private capital is the last bastion of upper-caste supremacy. If the deeply entrenched caste system has eventually to be rooted out, some of the final battles will have to be fought in the domain of the private capital. It is about time that the OBCs, Dalits and Adivasis begin to look beyond jobs in the government, a space which in any case is shrinking, and make strategic and planned inroads into the world of private capital.

The continuing trend of widening inequality clearly indicates that we may not have a singularity that characterises our future. On the other hand, we may have multiple futures, and multiple trajectories that lead us there. Indian society is in fact like a multi-headed dragon, its heads are racing towards various alternative future possibilities. The future of the big capitalists and that of the urban professional middle class may have some alignment with each other. They seem to be heading in fairly predictable directions. Their fortunes and those of the class that run the Indian State seem to be well integrated. By 2047, they will in all likelihood be located in insular and protected residential communities and work environments that will expose them less and less to others who do not belong there. A large chunk of them may have emigrated out of the country. All this is part of the great secession of the rich and the upper middle class from the rest of India!

But, the bulk of the Indian population, to the tune of about 80 per cent, who has only an indirect association with the organised or formal sectors of the economy will perhaps have pretty much uncertain futures. In the next about thirty years, this huge chunk of the Indian population may have to traverse through complex and unpredictable trajectories struggling all the way, in the case of some of them for some kind of upward mobility and for others, just to keep themselves afloat. There are of course major internal differentiations within this demographic bulk. There is likely to be about 20 per cent on the top of this chunk who are kept striving for entry into the charmed inner space of society and economy. They hover around the core economy, scaffold it from outside and in some sense even give legitimacy to it. The bottom 20 per cent on the other hand will receive the brunt of economic distress, ecological disasters, joblessness, displacement, homelessness and even disenfranchisement to a degree greater in intensity than perhaps what they experience at present. The middle 40 per cent is critical. They, along with the 20 per cent just above them, are the ones who will keep the republic going. This 60 per cent of the population are the ones who queue up at polling booths and elect popular governments. And they are the primary target of the mainstream media, fake news and other kinds of propaganda. Most of our mainstream media, particularly the news channels, have begun to resemble Roman circuses with millions of viewers on the virtual plane baying for blood and screaming thumbs down! I would suspect, that the viewership of the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) channel might have gone drastically down in India after the mainstream news media started airing their own gladiator fights!

The economists warn us that growth is not likely to generate new jobs. On the other hand, it is quite possible that employment in the organised sectors will stagnate, if not shrink. This will particularly be exacerbated in the coming decades through the advent of automation and artificial intelligence. Many jobs are likely to disappear. And the workforce will have to reinvent itself every few years by acquiring new skills to just about survive in the job market. This is going to be extremely difficult for people, not merely because of the economic consequences of joblessness, but also because of the intense emotional stress due to uncertainty and the constant struggle to reinvent oneself. Yuval Noah Harari in his book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, wonders “whether the average human will have the emotional stamina necessary for a life of such endless upheavals.”5 Harari predicts that “by 2050, a ‘useless’ class might emerge not merely because of an absolute lack of jobs or lack of relevant education, but also because insufficient mental stamina.” It appears that among the jobs that are going to stay protected would be those of psychotherapists, psychiatrists and other kinds of mental health professionals.

The ‘useless class’, which thus falls into the abyss of being permanently unemployed and unemployable, is rendered irrelevant by the organised economy because it holds no utility except minimally as marginal consumers. This contrasts with the ‘working class’ in an earlier epoch, which was susceptible to being exploited. Here Harari points to an apparent fall of the marginal class from being ‘exploited’ to being ‘irrelevant’. The logical extension of this scenario, according to Harari, is the dystopia where the useless class is eventually pushed into the margins and left to poverty, malnutrition, disease, and increased vulnerability to natural calamity, while the rich and the powerful soar, beyond hitherto unimaginable frontiers of superhuman glory, immortality and eternal youth, thanks largely to breakthroughs in bioengineering, the fruits of which only they can afford.

My sense however is that this may not quite work the way Harari predicts in societies like India. Even today, the formal sectors of the economy employ only less than ten per cent of India’s workforce. When the job market shrinks further in the decades to come, the class of people who would get left out may constitute too large a segment of the population to be just ignored and wished away. This class will surely evolve new and ingenious strategies to make their voices heard and organise themselves as resistance movements, whatever may be the nature of polity in India at that time.

Now let me come to another of my major apprehensions: In the next decade or so, we are likely to witness a free run for those who want to maximise their profits through an unprecedented level of exploitation of natural resources. The legal regulatory frameworks are likely to be loosened through legislative and administrative actions, ostensibly in the interest of an accelerated economic growth. We already see that the regulatory requirement of environmental impact assessments is often diluted in the name of ‘ease to do business’. We find that reports of committees appointed by the government on environment protection with much fanfare, such as the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, chaired by Madhav Gadgil, and that of the subsequent Kasturirangan Committee, eliciting no serious policy response, apparently for reasons of political expediency. The scientific community by and large seems to be looking the other way. The US withdrawal from the Paris agreement on Climate Change Mitigation has undermined possibilities of any effective global response to climate change at least for the present. Given all this, what will be the immediate, intermediate and long-term consequences of development at the cost of environment? Come 2047, what will be the state of our forests, our mountains, our rivers, our water bodies, our coastal areas and the people whose lives have for centuries been intricately intertwined with these? Would our cities in 2047 be choking with air pollution? Would we have by then found a sustainable solution to the water problem?

The ruling elite needs an effective device to divert people’s attention from real existential problems of extreme inequality and environ-mental injustice. The resurgence of hyper-nationalism and the politics of hate and ‘othering’ come handy as a highly potent tool. What would be the fate of the politics of hatred? Does hatred have a natural life-cycle that lives itself out—much like a viral infection? While I would like to believe that it has a limited shelf-life, I have fears lurking about that it may not be that way. This virus might form cysts that remain in the inner recesses of collective consciousness and whenever it is presented with the right conditions, it emerges out of the cysts for living out another full life cycle. N. Ram had the following to say while delivering the 16th D.S. Borker Memorial Lecture just three months after the May 2014 election results:

At moments like the present, the apparent absence of capabilities within the political and constitutional system to keep religious majoritarianism at bay dispirits those who believe in secular democracy and modern civil society. But surely it won’t do to accept any assessment or conclusion that suggests the inevitability of the triumph of an authoritarian majoritarianism over the progressive values of our freedom struggle, values that are embedded in our democratic and secular Constitution. I would like to think that given the strengths of India’s composite culture, its civilisational reserves, the wisdom of ordinary folk, the process being described above cannot be long-lasting. It is certainly not irreversible.6

I would really want to believe that N. Ram would have reaffirmed this view, if he were to deliver his lecture today, that is the 24th of August, 2019.

That there is nuclear capability among some countries in this region makes the politics of hate and the increase in hyper-nationalistic fervour in South Asia even more dangerous. The recent utterances in the sub-continent about resorting to nuclear options if necessary and the apparent rethinking about no-first-use may all well be part of an elaborate strategic posturing prior to a protracted process of diplomacy and politics. But, if a fortuitous sequence of events pushes us into hitherto unchartered territories, one shudders to think of what that could potentially lead to. As Harari says, one must never underestimate human stupidity.7

There are many wounds of the past that we nurse which give fodder to the politics of hatred. The one that has left the deepest scar in the entire subcontinent is the partition. The wounds of partition need to be allowed to heal once and for ever. Mr Rajmohan Gandhi, delivering the 14th D.S. Borker Memorial Lecture, said:

How can Delhi and Lahore, and India and Pakistan, find more visible ways of healing the wounds of 1947-and later wounds as well? (...) let me voice the hope that one day, through the toil and initiative of the bold and the forward-looking, a fine garden will emerge in Punjab, in Indian Punjab or Pakistani Punjab or along their common border, a garden where every leaf and flower would recall someone who perished in 1947’s fires of revenge. Something like this should be done, for unhealed wounds have the power to produce fresh injuries.8

Many of us here are aware that Professor Ashis Nandy and a large team of colleagues, drawn from various disciplinary backgrounds, conducted extensive documentation of testimonies by victims of partition. This was an attempt not just to document the madness and violence of those times, but more to create an archive based on which to work on the history of humanity, friendship and compassion. This work is an invaluable resource, a treasure. Several conferences and meetings have been held on this theme. Yet, there is a need for something more intense and comprehensive to be carried out. This monumental documentation should be a starting-point for what may well be a long and protracted process of reconciliation and forgiveness involving all the partition-affected people in the sub-continent. This is where I would like to offer a prayer. I would pray earnestly that well prior to 2047 we will have brought this sad and the most troubled, traumatic chapter of our history to a closure.

Part 4

I am a practicing educator. And I have my dreams, hopes and reasonable expectations about education in India in 2047. However, I would not like to go into questions that normally figure in any envisioning process about education, that is, about quantitative expansion, curriculum, the quality of transaction, the extent of spread of public and private institutions, the standing of Indian Universities in the global arena, the nature of research, the role of new technology that might revolutionise teaching-learning processes and so on. All these are important, but this will need another exclusive talk altogether. What I will focus on this evening are just two aspects of education that are linked with the issues that I have raised earlier in my talk. The first of these is about the primary social function of institutionalised education as a whole. In a highly stratified society like ours with wide inequalities, institutionalised education seems to serve mainly one social function, that is, ‘sorting and selecting’. I would like to examine how far this is true of education in India today, and what the likely trend might be in thirty years. The second aspect of education that I would like to touch upon this evening is about ‘thought control’. The State, particularly when it is transiting through a phase of diffidence and deep insecurity, resorts to exerting control over institutions of education, particularly universities. I would like to examine how this phenomenon would act out in the next few decades and what its possible consequences might be.

Sorting and Selecting

The architecture of our education system mirrors the terrain of our society, the institutional differentiations reflect class differentiations. I went to school in a district town in Kerala in the 1960s. Children like me, whose families could afford to send them to school, went to government schools or government-aided schools, all affiliated to the State Board. There were no private fee-charging schools at that time in my district and perhaps in the entire State of Kerala. The real social distinction was between those who went to school and those who did not. The fault-lines of social stratification ran along the boundary walls of schools, so to speak. In the same district, today, there are hundreds of private English medium schools affiliated to the CBSE, and a few of them to other elite boards. Many government-aided schools are opening up fee-charging private English medium entities within their own campuses. The government schools affiliated to the State Board still function with very few students attending them, largely those from the margins. The last two decades have seen a massive exodus of children coming from upwardly mobile lower middle class and working class families who have migrated from government schools to private schools. The middle class and the wannabe middle class have abdicated the public school system, just in the same manner that they have abdicated the public health system. With the exit of the middle class, the possibility of negotiating quality in these public systems has got drastically undermined.

Neither private nor public education is any longer a homogenous category. There are as many differentiations within each as there are social strata. Schools are becoming internally more homogenous though, the cultural ethos within them getting less diverse; there are institutions practically exclusive to communities, castes and religions. It is sad that today larger number of children graduate out of school without ever experiencing the joys of diversity.

The question no longer is who goes to school, but who goes to which kind of school. No matter what trajectory of schooling they go through, everybody seems to accept the system for its meritocracy and carries the impression that there is equality of opportunity. There is a sense of fair chance for everybody to compete in the gatekeeping rituals—the entrance examinations and aptitude tests at the end of class 12, around which the entire school and its auxiliary system (the coaching industry) revolves, transacting a content-loaded curriculum that trains young people through rote learning for assembly lines and which actively discourages critical thinking, originality and creativity.

These gatekeeping rituals give the impression of a fair opportunity to make it to elite higher education institutions, high salaried jobs and a passport to privilege. If young people don’t make it, a vast majority of them don’t, they wouldn’t blame the system, they blame themselves. Thus, the education system mediates the otherwise unacceptable levels of inequalities. Education is a lubricant that smoothens the grinding edges of class frontiers.

I am afraid that this trend is not likely to change in the next three decades. So long as inequalities in society remain, so will the ‘sorting and selecting’ function of school, through its diverse institutional trajectories. My modest hope is that the gatekeeping rituals at the end of class 12 may perhaps change for the better with time, and with that we may get a much needed release from the clutches of the culture of rote learning and the coaching industry.

However, the middle class abdication of public school systems will eventually spread to public higher education systems as well. We already see this trend in public higher education institutions at the district and the sub-district levels, and even at the State level. This might spread in the next couple of decades even to the “prestigious” public universities in the metropolises. This exodus will be abetted by the increasing trend of grossly inadequate public expenditure on higher education, particularly on liberal education programmes. The middle class exodus from public education also arises from problematic notions of what is ‘good education’. This is of course another debate and I will reserve it for a future occasion.

At the other end of the continuum, there is some hope—it is clear that the poor and the marginalised will become more discerning and demanding as regards what they consider as quality of public schooling (as well as other public services like health). The trend in Delhi of public schooling and public health gaining prominence as electoral issues will soon become a national phenomenon. While emotive issues like nationalism may continue to dominate national elections, those like education and health, along with water, electricity and housing, will become critical issues based on which State and the local governments will be elected.

Thought Control

In every society, there have historically been, free flow of thoughts and ideas, in one form or another, from scholars to scholars, from teachers to seekers and from experienced practitioners to the aspiring ones. Societies have always tried and created institutional structures like universities to contain this flow and the State has time and again attempted to exert some control over this flow. A confident and self-assured State would find university as a safety valve for the larger society. University contains within controlled conditions the implosion of dissent that often questions the fundamentals of the existing order; and its fallout seldom spills over the walls of the campuses to the larger society. These institutions therefore serve as crucibles for smelting new, untested and even inconvenient ideas, experimenting with them, and eventually containing them in the form of intellectual products like books, theses and works of creativity. At the end of the day, what these institutions really do is to train young people to dissent and to demolish intellectually what they might otherwise attempt to do physically. The graduates of universities eventually fit by and large into social positions as solid citizens in spite of the deep uneasiness some of them may continue to have with the society and many of them continue to translate their disaffection into creative and intellectual expressions within the contours of the existing order. Even the most “radical” of our universities have over the years produced multiple times more teachers, researchers, professionals, civil servants, journalists and development workers than they have produced anarchists and revolutionaries. A confident State knows the worth of university and the creative role of dissent that it discharges. It is always an insecure and diffident state that resorts to repression and ham-handed attempts at silencing free expression on campuses. Such repression only strengthens the flow of ideas. When there is a groundswell of ideas, there is no stopping it. When their free flow is blocked in formal institutional spaces, they will emerge in the form of a thousand little springs all over the informal landscape.

Anti-intellectualism has manifested in many societies in many instances in history. The most well known in the recent history has been the large scale burning of books and persecution of intellectuals in the Nazi Germany. These were acts of desperation coming out of fear of ideas. These are counterproductive at the end of the day. I am hopeful that what appears to be an anti-intellectual phase in our society will blow over soon.

In this connection, I would like to now talk about the genuine fear that the Social Sciences are going to be under some kind of siege. There may be serious shortage of funds and the environment in public universities may become such that the best minds may not be attracted to them. This may result in some of them migrating overseas or opting to do freelance scholarly work. University-based scholarship may see a phase of relative decline and mediocrity, a trend which I am afraid might take some time to reverse. But, I am sure it will reverse. The culture of scholarship and inquiry will undoubtedly find expression outside of formal institutions. Original thinking, scholarship and creativity will find their own ways of expression in various forms, through diverse modes and channels.

India is a civilisational society, and the intellectual and creative spirit of India shall never be thwarted beyond brief interludes of relative darkness.


My talk this evening was largely about the next thirty years, as per the theme of this lecture series. If the timespan for envisioning were a hundred years, there would have perhaps been reason for presenting a little more optimistic picture than what I could manage this evening. History teaches us that it takes hundreds of years for democratic institutions to stabilise. There is reason, perhaps, to hope that in another hundred years, if not thirty, we will have managed with greater success in seeing that the nation we promised ourselves in 1947 has been built to an acceptable degree of perfection. However, before this happens, we may go through a few decades of resistance and struggle, both political and cultural, in forms that we can’t now imagine.

As I said in the beginning of my talk, we tend to pray when we find reason not supporting our hope. When our prayer is composed with utmost serenity, nesting within it the very essence of a powerful vision, it acquires the potency to mobilise the inner resources and energies of a whole nation to strive together in solidarity. When Tagore wrote his famous prayer some time in 1900, which he called simply Prarthna in Bangla, he may have been totally immersed in sadness at the state India was in at that time. Some of his poems of that time, like “Keno cheye accho go ma mukho paane...” or “Why do you gaze at me thus, O Mother...”, written in the last years of the 19th Century, reflects this state of deep sadness and despair. Tagore may have found no reasonable basis at that time to expect that India would in the foreseeable future attain freedom from her political subjugation, abject poverty, obscurantism, sectarianism and bigotry. He must have felt deeply and totally helpless. His poems including his Prarthna may have trickled out of his immense anguish. Tagore might not have realised at the time he wrote his Prarthna that it would survive a whole century and more and would still contain the distilled essence of a new India’s hopes and aspirations for the 21st Century. I find no better way of concluding my talk this evening than by reciting Tagore’s Prarthna:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high, where knowledge is free.

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls.

Where words come out from the depth of truth, where tireless striving stretches its arms toward perfection.

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost it’s way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit.

Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever widening thought and action.

In to that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake!9

Thank you.

1. Manifesto of the Communist Party. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels (1848). Source: Marx/Engels Selected Works, Vol. One, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1969, pp. 98-137.

2. Sasha Raspopina (2017). Soviet time-capsules: messages from the past with lessons to teach us in 2017. The Calvert Journal. Calvert 22 Foundation. December 20, 2017.

3. P. Sainath (2016). My Vision of India 2047 AD. 18th D.S. Borker Memorial Lecture.

4. D. Ajit, Han Donker and Ravi Saxena (2012) “Corporate Boards in India: Blocked by Caste?”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 47, No. 32. pp. 39-43.

5. Yuval Noah Harari (2018). 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. London: Jonathan Cape. pp. 19-43.

6. N. Ram (2014). My Vision of India 2047 AD. 16th D.S. Borker Memorial Lecture.

7. Harari, op.cit., pp. 171-180.

8. Rajmohan Gandhi (2012). My Vision of India 2047 AD. 14th D.S. Borker Memorial Lecture.

9. Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali: Song Offerings (written originally in Bangla in the name of “Prarthna” circa 1900). Collected Poems and Plays of Rabindranath Tagore, London: Macmillan. p. 16.

The author is Professor of Education, Central Institute of Education, University of Delhi and was founder Vice-Chancellor, Ambedkar University, Delhi (2008-2018).

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